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The Monitor Movie Guide

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Movies containing violence (V), sexual situations (S), nudity (N), and profanity (P) are noted. Ratings and comments by the panel (blue stars) reflect the views of at least three Monitor staffers. Look for more guidance in our full reviews on the Arts pages.

EVALUATION SYMBOLS

David Sterritt Staff Panel Meaning

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

O\ O\ Forget it

u u Only if it's free

uu uu Maybe a matinee

uuu uuu Wait in line

uuuu uuuu See it twice

New Releases

THEREMIN - AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY (PG)

uuu The life and times of Leon Theremin, the Russian inventor who dreamed up the first electronic musical instrument in 1920, and also pioneered surveillance ''bugs'' for the Soviet government, which showed its appreciation by having the KGB kidnap him. This informative and entertaining documentary was directed by Steve M. Martin, no relation to the other Steve Martin.

TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING, JULIE NEWMAR (PG-13)

u Three female impersonators from Manhattan spend an unexpected weekend in a remote little town. Presumably this comedy wants to promote tolerance and diversity - so why is its attitude toward rural people, working men, and other ''normal'' targets so insulting and condescending? Directed by Beeban Kidron from Douglas Carter Beane's aimless screenplay. In all, a pathetic echo of ''The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,'' which had real insights into its unconventional subject. Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo star. P V

Currently in Release

u The Amazing Panda Adventure (G)

A 10-year-old American boy, a product of divorce and shopping malls, visits his father in China and finds him too distracted to give him any attention. Despite beautiful scenery and sets, the adventure of finding a wounded panda and cub, and fighting off the poachers, is predictable and marred by bad dialogue. By Carol Hartman

u Disappointing, stilted; wooden acting.

APOLLO 13 (PG)

uu A near-catastrophic NASA mission of 1970 is the subject of this fact-based drama about three astronauts who head for the moon, lose control of their expedition when an oxygen tank explodes, and refocus their attention on getting back to Earth in one piece. There's not much suspense, since audiences know the real-life incident ended safely, but director Ron Howard spins the story with enough gusto and gumption to make it reasonably entertaining. Tom Hanks heads a solid cast that includes Gary Sinise, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, and Bill Paxton in lead roles. P

uuuu Intriguing, instructive, glorious.

BABE (G)

uuu He's a pig who longs to be a sheepdog, to the consternation of his barnyard friends and the confusion of the humans who own him. The movie is at times raucous, but its spirits couldn't be higher, and the tale teaches a good-natured lesson about why cooperation is better than coercion. Best of all is the very funny climax, which should have grownups brushing away happy tears along with their kids. Directed by Chris Noonan.

uuu Hilarious, delightful, and appealing to adults.

THE BABY-SITTERS CLUB (PG)

uu A teenage girl renews her relationship with her estranged father (Peter Horton) while helping her friends run a backyard summer camp for little kids. The movie is fresh and friendly, but it doesn't have many surprises and the story sags at times. Based on Ann M. Martin's popular book series and directed by Melanie Mayron.

BATMAN FOREVER (PG-13)

uu As usual, the Caped Crusader (Val Kilmer) is less fun to watch than the villains he's chasing, especially the maniacal Riddler, played by Jim Carrey in a zany performance that's over the top even by his lofty standard. Tommy Lee Jones tries to match him as Two-Face, but quickly falls behind, and Nicole Kidman is fetching as the psychologist who tries to help our hero get in touch with his repressed memories. Directed by Joel Schumacher with occasional gestures toward social commentary, and enough spectacle to mask the movie's deep down emptiness. V

uu Holy hyperbole! bat-lite, cartoonish.

BEYOND RANGOON (R)

u On a trip to Burma in 1988, hoping to forget sad events in her recent past, an American woman finds herself running from murderous armed forces that oppose the country's student democracy movement. John Boorman's political adventure calls admirable attention to dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, a courageous foe of Burma's military dictatorship. But the movie puts more emphasis on endless chase scenes and jungle heroics, and Patricia Arquette's performance is terribly weak. V S P

uu Informative, troubling, too long.

BRIAN WILSON: I JUST WASN'T MADE FOR THESE TIMES (Not Rated)

uuu Rocking, rolling, highly entertaining portrait of the great guiding force behind the Beach Boys, one of the most important groups in pop-music history. The picture would be stronger if it had more footage and music from bygone years, instead of focusing on Wilson's present-day musings. It's mighty captivating, though. Directed by Don Was. Shown in some places with ''Gentle Giants,'' director Bruce Weber's brief, beautiful look at favorite movie stars, pop-culture icons, and dogs. P

THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN (R)

uu The personal, family, and romantic adventures of four Irish-American brothers in the New York City suburbs. The movie tries earnestly to blend wry humor with a no-nonsense charm deemed appropriate for its working-class characters, but the acting and scripting are too uneven for either the drama or the comedy to gather much steam. Written and directed by Edward Burns, who also plays one of the main characters. S P

uuu Unpretentious, funny, frank.

BUSHWHACKED (PG-13)

u A fleeing fugitive gets lost in the woods with a rowdy group of Cub Scout campers. Older kids may appreciate the comedy's brash vulgarity. Others may feel the title refers to them. Daniel Stern stars, which makes sense, since this is basically an outdoor edition of ''Home Alone.'' Greg Beeman directed.

CLUELESS (PG-13)

uu Valley-girl types cope with life, love, and clothes in a Los Angeles high school. For a while, it's like really cool, with lots of energy and stuff, but then it gets like major repetitious, and you wish it was like over, y'know? As if! Directed by comedy specialist Amy Heckerling. P

uu So totally entertaining, playful, clued in.

DANGEROUS MINDS (R)

u Michelle Pfeiffer plays a new teacher confronting a class of inner-city students with various chips on their shoulders. Movie stars have tamed sassy kids in movies from ''The Blackboard Jungle'' to ''Stand and Deliver,'' but it's hard to remember an example more patronizing or sentimentalized than this one. Directed by John N. Smith, whose earlier ''The Boys of St. Vincent'' is incomparably superior in every department. V P

uu Predictable, patronizing, shallow.

DESPERADO (R)

uu Vengeance and violence follow a man stalking an elusive enemy with a guitar case full of guns. There are enough clever cinematic setups to make this an improvement over Robert Rodriguez's previous picture, the hyperactive ''El Mariachi,'' and Steve Buscemi gives a winning performance that's over all too soon. But for the most part, this is just another exercise in snappy editing and over-the-top mayhem that will leave most grown-up moviegoers cold. Antonio Banderas stars. V S N P

uu El Pulpo Fictiono, ludicrous, satirical, shallow.

DOUBLE HAPPINESS (PG-13)

uuu Even single happiness is hard to grasp when you're a young Chinese-Canadian woman with an acting career that's stalled at the starting line, a white boyfriend who's a little too pushy, and old-fashioned parents who think they always know what's best. Mina Shum's debut film is consistently warm and amusing, although its energy flags a bit as the story unfolds. P

FREE WILLY 2: THE ADVENTURE HOME (PG)

u Cute kids, cuter whales, two nasty villains who want to kidnap Willy, and an oil spill to rile 'em all up. Little of the yarn is very adventurous, despite its title, but the watery scenes are prettily photographed by the great Laszlo Kovacs. Directed by Dwight Little. P

HYENAS (Not Rated)

uuu A woman returns to her village in Senegal after many years, offering to lift it out of poverty if the townspeople will inflict vengeance on a man who wronged her long ago. Based on Friedrich Duerrenmatt's haunting play ''The Visit,'' this engrossing drama is at once an unsettling psychological study and a pungent commentary on the temptations of materialism in the third world. Directed by the great Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety. V

THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD (PG)

uu A nine-year-old New Yorker becomes the owner of a magical cupboard that brings his toys to life. This gives him two new friends - a miniature Indian and cowboy - and also the difficult job of keeping them a secret from uncomprehending adults. The story is sensitively told, reminding young moviegoers that history is made of real people, not the caricatures who inhabit Hollywood myths. The film contains caricatures of its own, though, and the rap artist called Litefoot makes a lead-footed acting debut in the title role. Directed by Frank Oz. V P

uuu Delightful, caring, imaginative.

Jeffrey (R)

uuu The film version of Paul Rudnick's hit Off Broadway comedy about a young gay man (Steven Weber of TV's ''Wings'') who decides against sex in the era of AIDS. The play's impressionistic tableaux of homosexual life doesn't translate with complete success to the screen, but there are many hilarious lines. Patrick Stewart (of ''Star Trek'' fame) is a riot. S N P By Frank Scheck

JUPITER'S WIFE (Not Rated)

uu Michel Negroponte directed this highly personal documentary about a homeless woman he met in a New York park. The film has much to reveal about American society's attitudes toward people who march to their own drummers for reasons that may seem eccentric or obscure to others. The narration is simplistic at times, though, and the movie raises more questions about social issues than it's prepared to explore. P

A KID IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT (PG)

O\ Where he defeats a bad knight and befriends a princess before zooming back to the modern USA in time to win a ballgame. Rarely do the well-financed wizards at Walt Disney Pictures cook up a movie this badly written, acted, and directed. Released with ''Runaway Brain,'' a mildly amusing Mickey Mouse cartoon with a G rating, which is often featured just before the movie. The directors were Michael Gottlieb for the feature, Chris Bailey for the cartoon. V

KIDS (Not Rated)

uuu Hard-edged docudrama about a loose-knit group of Manhattan teenagers, focusing on a possibly AIDS-afflicted boy who takes pride in sexual conquests of young adolescent girls. Directed by respected photographer Larry Clark, the unusually explicit movie pulls no punches in capturing the raw, amoral energy of the subculture it depicts. While many observers feel it should be strictly off-limits for teenage audiences, it's hard to remember a film that conveys the destructive force of heartless sex and drug abuse with more cautionary power. V S N P

A LITTLE PRINCESS (G)

uuu When her father goes to fight in World War I, a creative young girl finds herself trapped in a nasty boarding school where she's reduced to the status of a mistreated servant. This comedy-drama for children and adults is made with more intelligence and imagination than many of the so-called art films that come our way, filling the screen with vivid images that ideally suit its fanciful plot. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron from a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler, based on the well-known Frances Hodgson Burnett novel.

uuu Enchanting, improbable, captivating for all ages.

LIVING IN OBLIVION (R)

uuu This is a low-budget independent film about the making of a low-budget independent film; fortunately, the picture we're watching is a zillion times more entertaining than the movie-within-the-movie appears to be. Written and directed by Tom DiCillo, the comedy reaches out most strongly to movie buffs who enjoy peering behind the scenes. But even casual spectators should enjoy its frequently hilarious satire on cinematic pretensions. Steve Buscemi leads the smartly chosen cast. S N P

LORD OF ILLUSIONS (R)

uu A private eye pursues a magician whose illusions are supernatural tricks of the most sinister kind. Clive Barker's horror yarn starts with a really original wallop, then sinks into standard chiller-diller gore. Scott Bakula stars. V N P

MAGIC IN THE WATER (PG)

uu Orky is a sea monster who loves chocolate cookies, and while most folks in town don't believe he exists, he helps two kids develop a closer relationship with their workaholic dad during an adventure-filled vacation. Rick Stevenson directed this mildly entertaining fantasy. P

NADJA (R)

uu She's a Transylvanian vampire on the loose in New York, and a dedicated monster-hunter is on her trail. The story has little to offer, but the movie takes on strong visual interest when director Michael Almereyda allows it to get really weird, creating some of his effects with a toy Pixelvision camera. Elina Lowensohn is convincing as the title character, but Galaxy Craze is irritatingly self-absorbed in the other key female role, and it's hard to imagine what Peter Fonda thinks he's doing as the straggly-haired hero. V S P

THE NET (PG-13)

u Computer hacker-hero vs. high-tech saboteurs. Sandra Bullock is her usual appealing self, but she can't transcend the predictable material she's programmed with here. Directed by Irwin Winkler, a filmmaker with more social awareness than cinematic imagination. V P

uuu Fast-paced, exciting, implausible.

NINE MONTHS (PG-13)

uu The movie isn't quite that long, but it has more than one dull stretch as a man reluctantly accepts the idea of parenthood with his pregnant girlfriend. The story is loaded with cliches and perilously weak on logic. Hugh Grant goes through his usual repertoire of lovable tics, but Robin Williams steals the show as a Russian doctor who says ''Anastasia'' instead of ''anesthesia.'' Directed by Chris Columbus. P

uuu Goofy, sappy, slapstick.

OPERATION DUMBO DROP (PG)

uu Green Beret soldiers transport an elephant to a remote Vietnamese village. Danny Glover and Ray Liotta head a cast of likable actors, and the dialogue provides some hearty laughs. The story has few real surprises, though, and it's disconcerting to see war-torn Vietnam turned into the backdrop for an escapist entertainment in the usual Disney mold. Simon Wincer directed. V P

POCAHONTAS (G)

uuu The adventurous romance between a spunky Indian girl and a hardy English colonialist, retold by the Walt Disney studio with a predictable tilt toward nostalgic myth rather than clear-eyed history. The film is attractively designed and energetically edited, in the usual Disney fashion, and it's interesting to see the Disney folks convey such a hearty endorsement of interracial dating. The drawing, directing, and dialogue all seem a bit mechanical, though, suggesting that the studio's magic formulas are wear thin. Mel Gibson, Irene Bedard, and native-American activist Russell Means head the talented cast. Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg directed.

uuu Highly enjoyable, light, earth-friendly.

THE POSTMAN (''IL POSTINO'') (PG)

uuuu Exiled by his 1950s political foes to a fishing village off the Italian coast, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda strikes up an unexpected friendship with a meek postman who's one of the island's few literate inhabitants. Directed with exquisite care by Michael Radford, this loosely fact-based drama is both a touching story of mutual affection and a deeply intelligent essay on the relationship between nature and culture. Philippe Noiret is a fully believable Neruda, even if the screenplay doesn't reflect the rich variety of the actual poet's work, and the late Massimo Troisi is brilliant as his unlikely companion. S P

uuuu Poetic, tender, quietly humorous.

THE PROMISE (Not Rated)

u The story of a love affair that begins around the time the Berlin Wall is constructed, and persists until the momentous changes that mark the end of East Germany's Communist era. German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta is an experienced director with strong social and political awareness, but she badly weakens the impact of this drama by confining its fascinating issues to the predictable boundaries of a corny soap-opera plot. Its lack of historical depth is almost shocking at times. V P

SAFE (R)

uuuu A woman develops health problems, decides chemicals in the environment are to blame, and contacts a cultlike self-help organization that leads her to progressive isolation from the everyday world. This thoughtful, chilling film is at once a poignant psychological drama and an incisive study of complex issues. Directed by Todd Haynes with a brilliantly controlled visual style that conveys great emotional power while purposefully avoiding the manipulative cues that conventional Hollywood movies rely on. Julianne Moore heads the superb cast. S P

SMOKE (R)

uuu Directed by Wayne Wang. Paul Auster's script seamlessly weaves the lives of tough but gentle people around a Brooklyn tabacconist. Harvy Keitel and Stockard Channing stand out, but William Hurt as a confused writer is a piece of wood (balsa). The action is talky and philosophical but in sweet celebration of everyman going nowhere. People actually discuss this film afterwards. By Jeff Danziger.

SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT (R)

uu A husband's infidelity sparks a crisis in a seemingly happy marriage. Fans of the overrated ''Steel Magnolias'' should find much to enjoy in Lasse Hallstrom's dramatic comedy, which combines a character-driven scrrenplay with a colorful Southern setting. Both the humor and the poignancy stay strictly on the surface, though, and the story's occasional signs of lifelike ambiguity are canceled by a tacked-on happy ending. Julia Roberts gives one of her best screen performances, but is still out-classed by Gena Rowlands and Robert Duvall. Written by Callie Khouri and photographed by Sven Nykvist. V P

uu Funny, uneven, not high-reaching.

SPECIES (R)

uu A dangerous alien is on the loose in Los Angeles, and must be tracked down before she mates with an unsuspecting man. The first 30 minutes are exciting, inventive, and witty, but the picture soon settles into a routine of chases and gross-out scenes. Most surprising is its misogynistic tone, suggesting that strong women are still more feared than respected in Hollywood. Roger Donaldson directed. V S N P

uu Repulsive, gory, a poor man's ''Alien.''

UNZIPPED (R)

uuu Wildly entertaining documentary tracing the activities of fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi as he prepares to unveil his 1994 collection at a New York show. Directed with nonstop energy by Douglas Keeve and imaginatively photographed by Ellen Kuras in black-and-white and color. Bold, boisterous, beautiful. P

THE USUAL SUSPECTS (R)

uuu Five shady characters meet in a police-station lineup and decide to take advantage of their acquaintance by planning a crime together; but the story's key character turns out to be a master criminal who's so elusive it isn't even clear whether he exists or not. Bryan Singer's thriller is awfully violent in spots, but a breakneck pace and truly surprising story raise it well above average for its genre. The cast includes Chazz Palminteri, Stephen Baldwin, and Gabriel Bryne. V S P

uu Dark, crude, absorbing.

VIRTUOSITY (R)

uu A former convict battles a computer-generated villain. Like the more inventive ''Natural Born Killers,'' this is a movie that chides its audience for gawking at violence while wallowing in violence from beginning to end. Occasional flashes of wit and imagination can't disguise its basic nastiness, although Denzel Washington's talent manages to shine through the mayhem. Directed by Brett Leonard. V N P

uu Amateur, cybertrash, laughable.

A WALK IN THE CLOUDS (PG-13)

uuu A recently returned World War II veteran poses as the husband of an unwed mother-to-be, and finds himself in a complex relationship with her Mexican-American family, who operate a vineyard as traditional as the Old World values they espouse. The tale is far from original, but director Alfonso Arau bathes it in a golden glow that goes beyond nostalgia to sheer dreaminess, lending a touch of Latin-style magic realism that suits the picture perfectly. Keanu Reeves and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon make appealing protagonists, although Giancarlo Giannini and Anthony Quinn get the best lines. V

uu Touching, unconvincing, beautifully filmed.

WATERWORLD (PG-13)

uu Kevin Costner plays a web-footed mutant who steers his ecologically correct sailboat through a future world inundated with water. Also on hand are two female companions and a villain who leads his wicked crew from a stronghold on the infamous Exxon Valdez tanker. Despite its record-setting budget, the movie is just a high-tech comic book that borrows from the ''Mad Max'' movies of the early '80s. At least Dennis Hopper plays the bad guy with wildness and wit. Costner's stolid hero seems a washout by comparison. Kevin Reynolds directed. V N P

uuu Rambunctious, exhausting, entertaining.

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